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With a cuneiform in my uniform

Stateside with Rosalea

With a cuneiform in my uniform, and a twinkle in my eye?

By Rosalea Barker

I stopped writing my daily war diary last week, not because the war is over (we're at September 1939), but because it's somewhat meaningless for someone who isn't where the story is to be writing about it, and because I was angry beyond reason.

What angered me so much were radio reports, the previous Friday night, of the torching of the national library in Baghdad. I was angry about this - and the incursion into the archaeological museum - because the occupying army seemingly stood by and let it happen. The mighty US of A is "all we-don't-care and no responsibility," to paraphrase a common saying. (If you are reading this in the US, and want to send a petition to your senators to demand a senate inquiry into how this was allowed to happen, you'll find a sample petition at the end of this column, courtesy of Andrew Stewart, who is an archaeologist working in Israel and a professor of ancient Mediterranean art and archaeology.)

Viewpoints abound as to what happened at the museum. There are reports that someone from Scandinavia, who was in Baghdad as part of the human shield presence, witnessed the US military transporting looters in, shooting the guards, driving a tank into buildings and calling out in Arabic: Come in and loot. "Baghdad doctors were calling out on satellite phones, reporting the same," said an audience member at the public talk I attended last Wednesday on 'The Cultural Heritage of Iraq and the Impacts of War'.

Someone else in the audience said they had heard that the CIA had been in negotiations with a particular professional organisation of collectors prior to the start of the invasion. The meeting's organisers cautioned everyone to be wary of all the rumours that are circulating. Indeed, "caution" seemed to be the watchword for the archaeologist who presented the first set of slides.

Scheduled long before the invasion, the talk had been overtaken by events to the extent that it was standing room only in the venue on a rainy California evening. The three presenters were all faculty in the Near Eastern Studies department of UC Berkeley, and the first was David Stronach,who'd been involved in excavations in Iraq in the 50s and 60s. He had also led excavations at Nineveh between 1987 and 1990 - staying home in 1988 to protest Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds.

A combination of the Gulf War and the UN sanctions decimated the Iraqi Department of Antiquities, he said, leaving many archaeological sites open to looting by armed gangs. Museum professionals here in the States tried to get assurances from the Bush administration that provincial museums would be protected in the event of war, because nine of them had been looted in the wake of the Gulf War.

After these introductory comments, Stronach showed his slides, beginning with one of Gertrude Bell. Her entry in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Encyclopedia states: "In helping create the National Museum of Iraq, she promoted the idea that excavated antiquities should stay in their country of origin." (There was a lot more to Gerty Bell than establishing a museum - she also participated in the creation of the nation of Iraq, as an on-line story about her from the Guardian on March 12 testifies.)

According to Stronach, one of the most important things about the collection that was in the National Museum of Iraq is that many of the archaeological finds were from cultures other than the dominant one of the time. The Assyrians, for example, had an extensive empire and brought much booty back home. Then in the 612 BC the Medes and the Neo-Babylonians sacked Nineveh (near Mosul). With characteristic caution, Stronach said of the finds that had been made at Nineveh: "I regret to say these were also in the museum, so presumably have been lost."

The two other speakers were much younger. Marian Feldman is an art historian who expressed regret that "a whole generation of us have been trained without being able to go to this area." Her slides concentrated more on the alluvial plain from Baghdad south, and were of objects such as an Assyrian relief showing fugitives hiding in the marshes, and a cylinder seal dating from 3000 BC that shows cattle pens almost identical to sheep pens still used today in the area.

She pointed out that the stele carved with the Code of Hammurabi is actually in the Louvre in Paris, not in the Iraqi museum as many news reports have said. The Iraq National Museum held a library that contained copies, made in the first millenium, of the text on the stele. But her main concern was seals, especially cylinder seals, which "embody the essence of Mesopotamia, and they'll be haemorraghing out of Iraq." They are only half an inch to two inches in size and give us, she said, an unbroken chain from the fourth to first millenium BC of the aesthetics, arts, mythology, history and administrivia of that civilisation.

The third speaker was Niek Veldhuis, who specialises in textual materials, of which the museum collection covered more than three millennia. He had no slides, simply describing and reading from some examples of what may have been lost. There was a Sumerian text, plainly royal propaganda but not boasting of military power; rather of achievements that bettered the life of the people. And lists of how many people it took to dig the canals that enabled civilisation to flourish.

Even before the Code of Hammurabi, Veldhuis said, there were codes such as that of Urnammu, from 2100 BC. Witnesses played an important role (as verifiers of contractual arrangements) in the legal system of the time, so the code outlines the punishments false witnesses could expect - a fine of 15 shekels of silver for perjury, for example. Also in the collection were the notebooks of Sumerian schoolboys, containing lessons such as a debate between the hoe and the plough.

The plough is pretty full of himself, because he of his importance to an agricultural society. At festivals he's decorated and lauded, so naturally he thinks he's a cut above the hoe. The hoe replies that the plough only has one use, and only at certain times of year, whereas the hoe has a variety of uses all year round - tamping down earth for a floor or a roof, for example. The text was teaching that being humble is better than being proud, Velduis said.

He ended with a summary of the epic of Gilgamesh, saying: "Gilgamesh's name lives again. Such is the miracle of writing, the everlasting gift of ancient Iraq to all humanity." By the end of the week, of course, we learned that maybe writing originated in another part of Asia with scratches on turtleshells. Since it seems likely that we will be forever reviewing the "firsts" of the world in the light of new discoveries, I don't see how that can weaken the argument for the importance of what the US military stood by and let be destroyed.

Perhaps I've got it all wrong. Perhaps the objects to be protected that were on the list given to the Bush administration weren't looted but taken into protective custody. A couple of weeks ago, one embedded reporter wrote of the nights the special forces went out on secret missions from Baghdad Airport on Bradley tanks like the one seen pulling over the statue of Saddam Hussein. Maybe their secret mission wasn't, as the reporter assumed, to kill or capture someone, but to climb in through a museum window.

For US readers, here is a sample petition to your senators:

Dear Senators ..... : I write to express my deep concern about the recent sacking of the National Library and National Museum of Iraq while US forces stood by. For details, see:

These barbarous acts are prohibited by Articles 3 and 4 of The Hague Treaty of 1954.

Article 3 puts the some of the responsibility of protecting cultural property on the shoulders of the Iraqi authorities:

"Article 3. Safeguarding of cultural property The High Contracting Parties undertake to prepare in time of peace for the safeguarding of cultural property situated within their own territory against the foreseeable effects of an armed conflict, by taking such measures as they consider appropriate."

But section 5 of Article 4 states that, even if the Iraqi authorities failed in their duty under Article 3, this gives no excuse to the United States:

"Article 4. Respect for cultural property 1. The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect cultural property situated within their own territory as well as within the territory of other High Contracting Parties by refraining from any use of the property and its immediate surroundings or of the appliances in use for its protection for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed convict; and by refraining from any act of hostility directed against such property. 2. The obligations mentioned in paragraph 1 of the present Article may be waived only in cases where military necessity imperatively requires such a waiver. 3. The High Contracting Parties further undertake to prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property. They shall refrain from requisitioning movable cultural property situated in the territory of another High Contracting Party. 4. They shall refrain from any act directed by way of reprisals against cultural property. 5. No High Contracting Party may evade the obligations incumbent upon it under the present Article, in respect of another High Contracting Party, by reason of the fact that the latter has not applied the measures of safeguard referred to in Article 3".

As you probably know, the United States has never signed The Hague Treaty of 1954:

Nevertheless, as the last citation indicates, in times of war the United States has generally observed the terms of the 1954 Hague Treaty. And, surely, no enlightened, fair-minded American would possibly attempt to defend the position that the sacking of the Iraq National Library and the Iraq National Museum are tolerable, let alone justifiable, events.

The Pentagon received repeated warnings from Professor McGuire Gibson, Chairman of its own committee of archaeological and cultural advisers on Iraq, that this kind of pillage was likely to occur. It apparently chose to ignore them. Despatch of even a token guard by the US Marines or Army would have prevented these outrages.

Museum professionals in the United States are receiving blistering criticism from around the world, attacking the US government for standing idly by while the collections of the Iraq National Library and Museum were stolen. This promises to put an indelible stain on the otherwise welcome overthrow of the tyrant Saddam Hussein. It may well also endanger American participation in a wide range of international programs in the area of cultural heritage.

As my representatives to the Senate, I therefore call upon you to do two things:

1) urge an immediate, formal Senate investigation of the events surrounding the sacking of the Iraq National Library and the Iraq Archaeological Museum with a view to ascertaining American responsibilities, if any, and what might be done, even now, to recover the cultural treasures of the Iraqi people;

2) urge the Senate to ratify The Hague Treaty for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954).

Sincerely yours,

© Scoop Media

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